The Carolina Panthers’ viral moment was months in the making. COURTESY CAROLINA PANTHERS


People had gotten used to virtual fans—floating heads along the sideline of the NBA Finals or avatars in the outfield bleachers at MLB games. But on Sunday, with NFL stadiums full again, augmented reality took center stage once more, this time in the form of a CGI panther standing on the 50-yard line.

By Tuesday, Carolina’s mixed reality clip of a massive feline leaping around Bank of America Stadium, and seemingly shredding a Jets banner in the process, had drawn more than 10 million views online. The video received more impressions than any other NFL team post during Week 1, according to Zoomph. Meanwhile, Panthers executives were already fielding requests from potential sponsors, as they plan to bring the project back for future home games.

“Initially we saw this as … a way to hype up the crowd,“ Panthers chief revenue officer Jake Burns said in an interview. “Now that we’ve seen the success and the earned media that it’s drawn, we definitely feel that there’s a lot of opportunities beyond what we had originally intended. … It’s safe to say that it’s generated strong interest from sponsorships.

Burns said the fake panther’s genesis stretches back to this spring, when the team set up an organization-wide working group focused on innovation. Carolina worked with The Famous Group, which helped the Baltimore Ravens create a CGI bird in 2019. While that activation drew attention from across the internet and ESPN, The Famous Group owner Jon Slusser said it paled in comparison to this week’s response.

“We started getting calls from around the world asking, What is this? And how can we do it?” Slusser said in an interview. “I definitely think this was a milestone in augmented reality.”

Soon after launching the raven, TFG was forced to pivot its business in response to COVID-19, working with organizations like ESPN, the Golden State Warriors and WWE to create virtual seat experiences. “Now that fans are back in the stadium, we are back to mixed reality, and this panther was kind of the intro back into that world,” Slusser said.

Using TFG’s platform along with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, which is generally used to build video games, the motion graphic took roughly two months to create, requiring two cameras, additional computing equipment and some gameday tuning to make sure the graphics matched their surroundings. 

The look is created by layering two videos on top of each other. The background video is the real environment being captured by cameras as they move. Another video, meanwhile, is overlaid on that, showing a virtual world. That fake world is created as a video game copy of the real world, built as a virtual playground for the digital panther, taking into account everything from the curve of the field to the position of the sun. Come game time, everything in the video game world except the panther is turned invisible. With the two worlds aligned in the camera, the panther then appears to jump on, skulk behind, and prowl over physical objects rather than their digital (and now invisible) twins.

Slusser said activations of this kind require a six-figure investment. But one week in, the effort is already paying dividends. According to calculations from Excel Sports Management, the clip generated more than $60,000 in value for the Panthers, the team sponsors (most notably Bank of America) whose logos appeared in the video, and other brands mentioned in related online posts.

In Houston, similar technology is being used directly for sponsor activations. On Sunday, that meant turning NRG Stadium into a massive Hot Wheels track for a Kroger-sponsored digital race. Slusser said The Famous Group is also working on more persistent applications that would change the look of a stadium (or a swath of empty seats).

“We can use this in a lot of ways to blend these video game and real environments together to where you don’t know what’s real and what’s not,” Slusser said. Going forward, the panther may even learn some new tricks. “The response last week got the creative juices flowing,” said Burns. 

“The technology is way ahead of the creative,” Slusser said, “meaning what the technology can do is unbelievable. What we’ve shown it to do is just the tip of the iceberg.”